James Matthew Wilson on What Poetry Is, and Isn’t

James Matthew Wilson
A conversation about poetry’s form and substance

James Matthew Wilson is an award-winning professor of religion and literature at Villanova University and the author of two poetry collections, Some Permanent Things (2014) and The Hanging God (2018).

As a poet, Wilson makes use of formal structures that are often a secondary concern, if not entirely disregarded, in much contemporary poetry. He is attentive to the centuries-long tradition of poetry not only as a common inheritance but as a living canon.

In the foreword to Wilson’s second collection, Dana Gioia describes his work as “not the music of the humble shepherd’s pipe but the double keyboard pipe organ — resonant, complex, and contrapuntal.”

National Review spoke with Wilson about his formal and stylistic poetic emphases, art’s permanence, and the influence of the Catholic faith on his writing.

Mary Spencer
: Who do you consider your ancestors in the poetic tradition?

James Matthew Wilson: I was writing short stories and working on my first novel when I fell in love with poetry. What I saw poetry had — that short stories and novels didn’t — was meter and rhyme. I came to poetry because of the specific formal properties that make poetry poetry as opposed to some kind of prose fiction. And I came to it through the great modern poets, T. S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, and the work of W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden. Actually, if you look at those four poets together, who between them could divide the world in terms of the achievement of modern poetry, they actually are all still practicing in the longer tradition that in English goes back through Shakespeare to Chaucer (and the longer Western metrical tradition that, of course, goes back to Virgil and Homer).

Eliot exploits fragmentation a great bit, and in some of his later poetry there’s a use of a psalm-like or high-platform rhetoric. But even where Eliot is most jagged and fragmented in The Waste Land, the world in which he’s writing is still a metrical world. It’s still very much in continuity with the poets whom he unseated to become the king of the cats. Late in life he was really disconcerted that young people weren’t reading Browning and Tennyson because he seemed to have criticized them. But in fact, to really understand what Eliot is doing, he has to be read in this larger context, including people he seemed to be attacking, such as Browning and Tennyson.

I use forms that Shakespeare would recognize and that with relatively little explanation could be made intelligible to poets of earlier ages. Poetry, as a living and contemporary art, is also in continuous contact with a tradition that extends back several thousand years. When I was a young, aspiring novelist, I looked at the novel and thought, “Oh, you have no pedigree. You have no ancestry.” And I looked at the poetic tradition and thought, “That’s what I want to belong to.” It’s a much more ancient family.

: Is there anything commonly considered poetry that you would not classify as poetry?

Wilson: There’s so much. In 2015 I published a book called The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, and the first hundred pages of that book are like a police record of child abuse.

What our age has done to this venerable art that everybody should love, from schoolchildren to the oldest and wisest of us!

There’s a lot that doesn’t rise to the level of poetry. Yet it all has some poetic element to it.

Poetry has been subject to terrible abuse before. The loose, totally unmeasured lines of most free verse — I just don’t know why people ever thought that was a good idea.

These poets who are becoming quite popular on Instagram these days — their poetry is totally ephemeral and uninteresting and unimaginative — but they take all this effort to make sure that it’s typed out nicely and looks pretty on the page; that’s a very slight virtue but a real virtue. They sense that there is something about poetry that connects us with permanent things. And in many of our imaginations, a vintage typewriter seems permanent in its crude, mechanical way.

: What is poetry’s relation to permanence?

Wilson: Every good human activity has an aspiration to permanence. Everything that’s fruitful is about participating in eternity in some way. Works of art just do this in a way that’s a little more obvious, because they come into being, there they are, and they take their position among the things of the world. They stand apart from us and our lives in a way that they can, in principle, last forever. Though, of course, they will never really last forever. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the statue will eventually lay fallen in the desert. But this is the particular kind of permanence that is appropriate to a work of human hands.

Every dimension of a work of art should betray the way in which it is a thing of its time, made by one person at a particular moment in which certain things are believed and certain others aren’t. But, in addition to that, the work should try to make its case for being a kind of lasting work that should exist forever.

The poetic tradition is a tradition where things accumulate. It’s not the case that one kind of poem is appropriate in one century or generation and not appropriate in the next. To the contrary, the poetic tradition is one where we’re finding new ways to bring more of human experience into aesthetic representation. And that means that older ways, or aspects of human experience that could already be well represented, don’t go away or cease to be relevant or salient for poetry.

But the poet has a responsibility to do his best to stand simultaneously in the permanent and lasting and in the ephemeral. Because what’s most permanent often looks very different from one moment to another. It’s part of the dramatic dimension of poetry that it’s capable of showing us the permanent under the light of the temporal.

: Do you consider poetry song?

Wilson: Yes — and kind of. The second-to-last section of The Hanging God is called “The Stations of the Cross.” The stanzaic form of all the poems in that section is that of the “Stabat Mater,” Jacopone da Todi’s medieval poem about the Blessed Virgin Mary standing beneath the cross on Good Friday. When I wrote “The  Stations,” I intended them to sound good both recited as poetry and also sung.

I published a grand total of one poem in free verse, and that was a satire making fun of other free-verse poetry.

One of the great ruinations of modern poetry was through pretending that poetry could somehow exist only on the page as a textual artifact. Whereas writing always has its origin in the ear and on the tongue. It’s harmful to language when it stands at any remove from the spoken word. I always write with an ear to oral performance, and my hope is that if I’m doing so it will lend itself to song.

Over the last few years, I’ve tried to keep the sentence rhythms of my poetry more tightly contained within the stanzas. Part of the reason for that is because that lends itself more to song. Even though I always write metrically, prior to that I was always very interested in exploiting techniques that allow the sense of a sentence to get drawn out across the verse in ways that would not always lend themselves to singing, because the sentence rhythm might be overflowing the limits of a stanza.

In Milton’s preface to Paradise Lost he speaks of “the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another.” I think that for Milton and for me alike, the first interest in metrical poetry is that it makes our own spoken language more polished and refined.

I hope, though, that in most cases, when it’s refined speech, it could also be further refined and set to music.

: Do you have a preferred meter to read or write?

Wilson: Yeats’s greatest poems are all written in ottava rima, eight-line stanzas that rhyme abababcc. If I come across an ottava rima poem in his works, I know it’s going to be one of my favorites. But I never wrote in ottava rima until a couple of years ago when I wrote two poems — one called “The Fourth Sunday of Advent” and another poem that hasn’t been collected yet called “Self-Possession.

I like stanzas that are elaborate and complex and that startle us with their own extravagance. But I also am a great lover of blank verse. Meter really is just a further refinement of natural human speech, and blank verse shows that to the greatest effect. With just a few brief turns of syllables, blank verse can go from the most colloquial speech, such as “the toilet’s clogged again; you better call the plumber,” to the most tightly wrought and refined statement, like the beginning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.” Those two lines are just so perfectly realized as the highest possible speech, and they’re in the same meter as the toilet-clogged-again line. That’s one of the particular joys for me of meter in general.

: Do you consider any aspects of human experience unworthy of poetry?

Wilson: There are most certainly particular subjects that are more naturally worthy of poetic representation, but that’s because those are just more important subjects, period — love, death, the desire for God, the contemplation of the divine, the contemplation of the world.

But poetry just needs to be in a specially refined language, not in a particular subset of language where only certain things can be dealt with. I do my best to try to find from time to time some kind of far-flung object for a poem. I test to see whether poetry has the ability to shed wisdom on that oddity.

: Should poetry be necessarily didactic or moral?

Wilson: I think it would be too restricting. But a didactic poem can be a very good poem. Sometimes, the only appropriate response to things is a very didactic or settled response. If you read some of the great poems of the 16th century, they often read like little moral epigrams.

There’s a poetry of definition or summary that begins with the drama of human experience already having been gone through and then it arrives at a certain conclusion.

But most poetry, even when it’s called a lyric poem, is intrinsically dramatic. It wants us to live through the experience and have to fight our own way toward a conclusion. Most great poems are of that kind, because they not only deliver to us the final wisdom that we might appreciate and agree with, but they help us move toward that wisdom in a first-person experience.

: Were your reversion to religion and your increased interest in poetry related?

Wilson: They interwove. When I was younger, I had a clear sense that literature had this sacramental power. Literature can reveal the truth and change your life — and that’s what a sacrament does too.

I’m not sure how much faith I had in the actual sacraments. But I trusted the sacramental quality of art.  It’s only a matter of time, if one continues to reflect on the nature of art, until one realizes that works of art are capable of the power they attain only because there’s more to the world than art or the stuff of time. Beauty has to be a real thing for works of art to do what they do. And for beauty to be a real thing, there has to be a God.

I remember being a callow sophomore thinking of nothing but Dante all day and not thinking that it had anything to do with the Catholic Church in which I grew up. But it wasn’t that long before I was reading the Purgatorio for the tenth time or so on a porch in Ann Arbor and I just got up and went to Mass. And then I just kept going.

Even when my faith was tepid, it always seemed to me that the only seriousness was the seriousness that the Church represents. The experiment that I made for a short time as a student — and one that many others have made — is to test whether there can be any meaningful life apart from one that’s given over to the love of God and the thought of God. I don’t think anyone can really convince themselves that that’s the case.

My whole understanding of the poetic tradition is one that could, with pretty limited changes, be mapped onto the history of the Church. I have written a fair amount on sin and lust and fallenness, and that’s all in the context of trying to see the inferno dimension of human experience alongside the purgatorial and the paradisal.

Art and poetry led me back into the Church. Yet it was while reading John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio when it was first published that I realized that even the aesthetic attraction to the Church that I had wasn’t adequate. I was too cavalierly bifurcating the world into the beautiful and the true. It took reading that encyclical to realize that truth and beauty are one.

And so, if we want people to hear the truth, we ought to take responsibility for manifesting the truth in forms that are adequate to itself.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


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